I woke with a splitting headache and deep dark circles beneath my eyes. Tugging the sleep mask back over my eyes, I longed to bury myself in the sheets and blankets and not come out for a good long while. But the pounding of my head forced me to seek out water. And coffee. And some Ibuprofen. Stat.
I had all the classic symptoms of a hangover. But too much bourbon wasn’t to blame. No, instead I had an emotional hangover.
My body was completing depleted – emotionally and physically – from crying for the better part of the previous evening. I’d alternated between sobbing into my husband’s shoulder and choking out a few words while he stroked my hair and tried to encourage me.
Unfortunately, this scenario wasn’t exactly a new experience for us. Since moving to LA, I’ve had plenty of sad moments. I’ve felt lost and lonely more days than I care to count. But this evening was different.
A Pity Party of Epic Proportions
I had spent the day in downtown LA, interviewing with a healthcare consulting firm. My morning was filled with back-to-back meetings, while the afternoon was reserved for a case study. I was given three hours to essentially put together their first ever marketing communications strategy and also write a 500-word article about why the healthcare “repeal and replace” bill had initially failed. It was an exciting challenge that I was happy to tackle, but when I presented my plan to the interview panel, I quickly realized I wasn’t who they were looking for.
At the end of the presentation, we had time for Q&A, and I concluded with the question, “Is there anything in this presentation that leaves you with questions or that misses the mark for you?”
“No,” the hiring manager quickly fired back. “This is what we know we need to do. We just need someone to do it.”
As I packed up my things and walked away from the conference room, I knew I didn’t want that job. And that’s what scared me most. Marketing and communications – particularly healthcare marketing and communications – felt like what I was “supposed to do.” The most “legitimate” career path in front of me. After all, that had been my bread-and-butter for the last eight years. So if I didn’t want to do it anymore, what did that say about me?
As soon as I got in my car and called my mom (because we all need our moms, particularly in moments of crisis), the tears flowed freely. And they didn’t stop until nearly 8 o’clock that night.
What started out with a few tears turned into a pity party of epic proportions. I missed my family, I missed my friends, and I missed the sense of identity and security I’d lost since losing my job and my home in San Francisco. I didn’t know where to go from here. It seems that the career I had set up for myself wasn’t al that attractive or fulfilling to me. But ask me what I wanted to instead, and I couldn’t really give you an answer.
I was stuck in what pastor and author Jeff Manion refers to as “the land between.”
Blind Dates in the Land Between
So, I cried – a lot – and woke up with a nasty emotional hangover. I was supposed to meet a friend of a friend for coffee at 11, and I didn’t feel prepared to present myself to someone new. These “blind friend dates” are pretty much how I’ve been spending my days since moving to LA. Applying for jobs, meeting new people, applying for more jobs, meeting more new people. Eat sleep repeat. I worried about what she would think of me – the signs of a bad night written all over my face.
Thankfully, my husband had advised me to be kind to myself that morning, to just allow myself to rest before my coffee date. So rather than head to a strenuous workout class or dive into the job boards, I stayed in my pajamas, sipped my coffee, and read a new cookbook (which, for me, is the pinnacle of enjoyment). When I could put it off no longer, I showered and made myself presentable for my hopefully-soon-to-be new friend Molly.
We met up at Coffee Commissary, which I have made my unofficial headquarters for writing/job-hunting/community-building here in LA. I ordered a cold brew while Molly grabbed her latte from the bar, and we settled at a table on the back patio where the sun was beginning to stream in and the bees were buzzing from flower to flower.
To my relief, we didn’t talk all that much about “the industry” or how to be a kick-butt go-getter career woman extraordinaire. Instead, we shared a deeply honest conversation about our love-hate relationship with LA, about learning to be married, and about wondering if we actually don’t want this crazy career life that seems to be the expectation placed on women – and men – these days.
What if career ambition and job success isn’t our highest calling? What if we place a higher value on being there for our husbands, spending time with our friends, and investing in our communities? Wouldn’t our lives to be ordered quite a bit differently? And would that be okay?
A New Door
After a couple hours, Molly had to head home to her young daughter, but I stayed, ordered some avocado toast, and spent the afternoon working on the never-ending queue of job applications. I savored the rich taste of avocado and almost cheese-like creaminess of the sunny side up egg. Little green snips of chives and a drizzle of olive oil glistened over top of the egg, while a sweet and smoky red pepper spread was the perfect complement to the seeded bread. The whole thing was at once creamy and comforting, crunchy and satisfying.
I allowed myself to relish this meal while I explored a completely different career path. Well, not completely different, but certainly a departure from the role I had recently left behind. I looked at office manager positions, and executive assistant roles, and job posts that were much more focused on operations and organization than growth marketing and brand building.
As I tweaked my resume and wrote cover letters that highlighted more of the customer service and project management aspects of my career thus far, I realized that these were the things I actually enjoyed. I liked writing and process development and implementing workflows that increase collaboration and efficiency in organizations. And yet, I still struggled with the optics of these jobs. What would it look like for me to take something that was “below my pay grade?” Was it okay for me to aim for what felt like “less?”
Despite my reservations, I persisted in sending in these applications. When my husband, who works down the street from Coffee Commissary, stopped by to say hello, I told him about my progress. And guess what? He loved it. He didn’t think less of me, and he actually thought it could be a smart move for me to take a job I enjoyed – what a revelation! – that also allowed me the freedom to write more.
If he thought it was a good door to walk through, why was it so hard for me to be convinced?
It’s Okay to Drop the Ball
That afternoon as I took a walk around the neighborhood – the birds chirping and the breeze keeping me cool despite the growing Southern California heat – I listened to a podcast in which the host interviewed Tiffany Dufu, an advocate for women and girls and the author of the book Drop the Ball.
In the interview, she explained that the purpose of her book is simply to give women permission to let go of some of the societal and self-imposed expectations that are dragging them down. Figure out what matters most to you, she says, and that will help you determine what balls you’re okay with dropping and where you want to “delegate with joy.” For overachievers and recovering perfectionists like myself, this narrowing of focus can be an extremely challenging process.
A good starting point is the exercise that Stephen Covey presents in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – the somewhat morbid “funeral visualization.”
Think of yourself at the end of your life – actually, when it is already over. What do you want people to say about you? How do you want to be remembered? For me, I actually don’t care if I was a marketing and communications director or the executive at some very cool startup. What I want people to remember, what I want them to say about me, is that I loved well. That I cared for my husband, that I made time for my family, and that I put love and intention into my community.
That’s it. And the ways in which I do that probably won’t be in a typical business track, but rather in a portfolio of offerings. Through writing, through gatherings, and through walking with people through tough experiences in their life.
Perhaps that means an office management job with writing and event planning on the side. Or, I may get to the point where I want to go back to school and study counseling and make that part of my life’s work. As I began to consider these options, something opened up in side of me. And in that space, a small seed of hope began to grow. Hope that I might finally give myself permission to drop the ball of “become a high-powered, high-visibility, high-pressure marketing communications professional.”
As I work on giving myself permission, as I visualize this alternate future, I feel more peaceful and hopeful than I have in a while. These new possibilities are things I couldn’t see before being confronted with my own pride. My unwillingness to let go of the expectations that didn’t fit me was rooted in my fear of what other people would think and my myopic focus on safety and security.
Now (slowly) I’m stepping out in faith. And what is faith? It is “confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). I don’t see it all just yet, but I’m confident that Someone does.